The Infatuations by Javier Marías

08/09/13, Outlook Magazine

María Dolz sits in the same Madrid café every morning and watches an attractive couple, clearly very much in love, have breakfast there every day. The routine of silently witnessing gives her pleasure and some kind of small daily mooring. One day the couple, Luisa and Miguel Deverne, are no longer there and María discovers that the gruesome newspaper photo of the fatally stabbed businessman on the pavement, lying in a pool of blood, is none other than Miguel Deverne. She learns that he has been killed by a mentally ill, homeless man, Vázquez Canella, who had got it into his head, as one story went, that Deverne was responsible for Canella’s daughters’ involvement in an international prostitution ring. Several months later, María sees Luisa come in to the café with her children and goes up to her to offer her condolences. And in Luisa’s home that same day she meets the ‘virile and handsome’ Juan Díaz-Varela, the dead man’s best friend, now entirely dedicated to helping his widow come to terms with her loss and assist her in the process of recovery and renewal.

It is at this point that any sensible reviewer has to stop talking about elements of the plot, leaving readers to discover the fiendish corkscrew turns of the narrative. Javier Marías’s latest novel, The Infatuations, returns us to the territory of his second and third works of fiction, A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me: heterosexual desire; deception and betrayal; the provisional nature of appearances, indeed, of truth; the morality, or otherwise, of love.

As María gradually finds out more about the killing, and as she gets romantically involved with Díaz-Varela, albeit in a rather one-sided way, nothing remains stable or contained in the initial state that she, and we, the readers, perceived it to be; not the apparently motiveless murder, not Díaz-Varela’s self-abnegating friendship with Luisa, not even María’s own feelings. The skin of appearances is peeled back, time after time, to show us what lies beneath yet this layer, too, turns out to be another kind of skin, a mask, not the real tangle of nerves and muscles and arteries that you expected to be exposed.

So it proceeds like a thriller but the nodal points of revelations are interspersed, in Marías’s signature style, with the rigorous and exhaustive parsing of these uncoverings. Take, for example, the long meditation on the undesirability of the dead returning to the land of the living, for the purposes of which Díaz-Varela brings in Balzac’s novella, Le Colonel Chabert. He argues, ‘We see quite clearly [in Balzac’s story] that, with the passing of time, what has been should continue to have been, to exist only in the past, as is always or almost always the case, that is how life is intended to be, so that there is no undoing what is done and no unhappening what has happened; the dead must stay where they are and nothing can be corrected.’ The Balzac story is used not only as an illustration but also a justification: we will discover shortly the explosive ramifications of this foray into literary criticism for the story in which María finds herself.

Because all of Marías’s narrators, including María Dolz, are endowed with hypercogitative (and hypereloquent) interiorities, all these discursive and radically verbose digressions may seem irrelevant, but don’t be fooled for even the briefest of moments: the most lethal of stealth currents are hidden away in the great wash of words. Here is the great brilliance of Marías’s prose. The long runs of his glorious sentences, reproducing with great fidelity the fluid movements of thought, are mesmerising in their rhythm – I’m often reminded of the music of Steve Reich and John Adams – but suddenly in the middle of the entrancement Marías will have a knife flick open, transforming the hypnotism to something entirely different.

But this is not all that the prose achieves. At one point in the book, María observes, ‘… it’s extraordinary how, after so many centuries of ceaseless talking, we still don’t know when people are telling us the truth.’ Like all other novels by Marías, this book, then, enacts its own premise, both the ‘ceaseless talking’ and the uncertainty about truth-telling, in the way truths have proved elusive, illusive and shape-shifting for María and readers. The novel as epistemological enquiry – how do we know what we know? – is not new but Marías gives his version of the theory of knowledge a characteristic twist: can we ever know? The metaphysical thriller has never been so exciting, cutting so close to the bone, as in Marías’s hands; no living writer does it with greater bravura skill.

And while we are on the prose, the laurel given to the translator Gregory Rabassa by Gabriel García Marquez – ‘The greatest living Latin American writer in the English language’ – should surely now crown Margaret Jull Costa, whose translations from the Spanish and Portuguese form some of the most brilliant reading of our times?